Scheduling the English men’s domestic calendar is a desperately difficult business. You are juggling the interests of the red and white ball games across four competitions, 26 teams and 30-odd venues, all while trying to take international action into account.
But, by any measure, the 2021 season – in terms of schedule and format – has been a dog’s dinner.
It’s seen the LV= Insurance County Championship played in two chunks, each very distinct from the other, at opposite ends of the summer. It’s seen the Vitality Blast group stage played in June, its quarter-finals in August and its Finals Day in mid-September. It’s seen the Royal London One-Day Cup relegated beneath the Hundred (the centrepiece around which everything was built), and its final played on a Thursday.
We already know a bit about the 2022 summer, and a little more has been leaking out about the ongoing discussions around how the Championship will work. What we know:
• The Vitality Blast will finish with Finals Day on July 16
• The England men’s schedule, barring the possibility of an extra Test against India being scheduled
• These two things tell us that the Hundred will need to be played between July 17 (after the end of the Blast) and August 14, the last weekend England do not have a Test match that month. Sky, after all, are not going to broadcast a men’s Test and Hundred finals weekend on the same day. That leaves the Hundred a four-week window, which is plenty of time.
Using that info, this article is an attempt to propose a better way forward for the domestic game in 2021 and beyond.
The proposed schedule – approximately
• April: RLODC group stage
• May 1 until mid-June: first 7 rounds of CC, and RLODC knockouts
• mid-June until July 18: Vitality Blast
• July 18-August 14: The Hundred; The Bob Willis Trophy
• From August 15: final 7 rounds of CC
England men’s fixtures can be seen here, but essentially they are:
• June: Tests vs New Zealand
• July: Limited overs vs India and South Africa
• August: Tests vs South Africa
What is the Bob Willis Trophy?
The Hundred – like it or not – is here to stay. With it go at least 100 of the best white-ball cricketers from the county game in the height of summer.
That means that any white-ball competition played in that slot – like the Royal London this year – is short on quality, and sees red-ball specialists either twiddling their thumbs or playing as square pegs in round holes. It also means England’s next generation of ODI players do not play 50-over cricket, which is a concern beyond the 2027 World Cup. It is more damaging for, say, Will Jacks or Tom Banton to miss 50-over cricket than some additional red-ball cricket.
So why not play red-ball cricket at that time? Well, because the County Championship – still the competition most valued by players and fans alike – would be compromised by weakened teams.
The solution is a first-class competition that is not part of the County Championship. How about we call it the Bob Willis Trophy? Currently, the season finale between the county champions and their closest challengers is a tacked-on waste of time not worth its name.
Instead, we should move it to the four weeks under the Hundred in midsummer, and have fun with the format. Matches could be three days or four, depending on how you wished to divide the 18 counties.
The 2020 edition of the tournament seems a pretty good place to start, with three pools of six, and the two top-scoring teams in the competition advancing to the final. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. In four weeks, there would be time for each team to play five three-day games, with a four-day final perhaps straddling the weekend of the Hundred’s finale.
Playing conditions could be tinkered with, too. Given it is played in high summer, we could look at some of the current shortcomings of the county game. So, for instance, teams could be offered extra points for taking wickets with spin (or even preparing spin-friendly surfaces) and, like 2020’s BWT, first innings could be capped at 120 overs – with incentives for reaching that stage, especially if runs flow at a good lick. Alternatively, we could award big bonuses for innings victories. The Kookaburra ball could be used.
A happy by-product would be that if England’s Test specialists – say Rory Burns or Jimmy Anderson – needed some red-ball cricket to warm up for the Test matches in the latter half of the summer, there would be some on offer.
Another upside is that the favoured format of county members is first-class cricket. While the Hundred is on, give them what they want. Outgrounds would be the perfect hosts.
Why move the Royal London One-Day Cup?
Placing the BWT under the Hundred means the RLODC needs to move. The last time this unloved tournament was played properly, in 2019, it began in April and was all wrapped up by June.
While white-ball cricket and the month of April do not seem a perfect match, there are cricketing reasons that make an early start sensible. The quality of white-ball batting across England is far higher than red ball. That means that if conditions are slightly bowler friendly, the scales are balanced a little.
Besdies, hybrid pitches and the white Kookaburra ball should mean that conditions aren’t that bowler-friendly anyway. In 2019, the opening day of the campaign (April 17) saw five of the six teams batting first post scores in excess of 310. Two days later, there were scores of 417, 366 and 358. In all, there were 46 scores of more than 300 in 77 matches.
Each team could play eight matches in the group stages, which can be completed by the end of April. The knockouts could be played on the first three weekends of May (after Championship matches in the week), with the final – back at Lord’s – on the final Saturday of May, before the first Test begins.
This tournament could also provide pointers for England white-ball selection later in the summer.
So what of the County Championship?
For now, a 14-match Championship remains. There is just enough time to get it done. Seven (or eight) matches can be played in the first chunk in early summer, while August and September can have seven (or six) more fixtures to complete the season.
This means that, with the exception of April and a month-long block for the Vitality Blast, there is a diet of first-class cricket (with each county playing at least 18 matches) throughout the summer. When England are playing Tests, first-class cricket is played before and alongside it.
In coming years, is this the right format if a four/five-game Bob Willis Trophy exists too? My personal preference would be for a 12-match Championship – perhaps played in three seven-team divisions, with promotion and relegation (two up, two down). Division Three could be filled out with a first-class team from Ireland, Scotland, a “Young England” side made up of players not in counties’ first-team plans, or perhaps the previous year’s leading National County. It would not necessarily need to be fully professional.
The Vitality Blast
This tournament, if required can start on Friday nights while the Championship is played Sunday-Wednesday in June, but would have its own month-long window, allowing teams access to decent overseas players after the IPL and before the Hundred.